At the end of last year (2009) Miki Johnson and Andy Adams coordinated a “cross-blog” discussion about the future of photography books. Over forty bloggers participated with a range of amateur and professional voices piping in and adding their thoughts to the mix.
The interest in the subject of photobooks* has continued unabated and various fairs devoted to the Photobook are popping up around the world.** With the 3rd annual Photography Book Now contest deadline fast approaching (sponsored by Blurb and featuring a whopping $25,000 grand prize), a few of us that love photobooks thought we would initiate another online discussion about self-publishing—where we’ve come in the last few years in terms of perception, creativity and technology.
Please feel free to add your comments here or post in-depth thoughts on your own blog and send us the link.
—Darius Himes, Santa Fe, June 30, 2010
*I recently tried to order the Chinese edition of Robert Frank’s The Americans only to be told it’s not available in the U.S. Who knew (besides Martin Parr and the elves at Steidl) it would even be published in China?!
**The first annual Fotobuch Tage in Hamburg, Germany was well-attended and had, as part of the programming, a photobook dummy exhibition during which the public got to vote for their favorite not-yet-published photography book.
Why is the book format so important to photographers?
DB: Nowadays, so much is online and intangible that photographers and other artists like the idea of making something that so many people can actually touch and hold, especially something that is made in such limited editions, like (most) photographs.
AA: Good question—everybody wants to make a book! I suspect that many photographers are compelled to publish because, like a physical exhibition, the printed page provides a controlled environment for presenting their work to an audience. David is right about the intangibility of the online publishing experience and I think that does play a role for many photographers today—the gallery wall and the web browser are unique platforms for showing photography, but a book just lasts longer, and that physical permanence is still very important.
DH: I think the book format is vital and dynamic because of photography’s close relationship to both film and literature, and the historical relationship with the printed page. Many photographers, throughout the history of the medium and particularly before the current proliferation of galleries devoted to photography, saw the book and the printed page as the only and ultimate place their work would be seen. This cultivated a deep-seated love for the book.
Why do you like the book format?
DH: The tactility; portability; accessibility, by which I mean one doesn’t need electricity to access it; and the possibility of amazing design; its pure physicality.
MM: I love the feel of a book. In looking at images online, you do not get to see the shimmering foil stamping on the cover, the subtle varnish resting over the plates, the raw boards rubbing against your fingers generating “the nails on the chalkboard” shivers, the smell of the over-saturated inks, and on and on.
AA: I’ve been collecting books as long as I can remember—I like looking at photos printed on paper and if it’s a good book, I’m compelled to have a copy of my own that I can keep as long as I want. I’m fascinated with digital media and am excited to explore that format, but I’m still very attracted to the permanent quality of a photo object that’s made of atoms instead of bits. I suspect we’ll see more analog/digital hybrid publications in the future and how we define “the book format” is bound to change in the iPad era.
DB: First, it allows me a chance to own, to have something that I might not be able to otherwise afford, such as an actual photograph. Second, as long as there is light, I can look at a book and enjoy it’s uniqueness and bask in it’s beauty.
What do we mean by “self-publishing”?
DH: Up until about 10 or 15 years ago, “self-publishing” meant that you produced a traditional trade book without working with a publisher. That meant you hired a designer and worked directly with a printer and bindery. You then had the responsibility of contacting bookstores yourself in order to get the book “out there” into the hands of the public (or at least other photographers). There was a stigma often attached to a monograph that had been self-published—it was called a “vanity publication” because the implication was that no publisher had wanted to publish it and so the photographer simply forked out the $30k, $40k, $50k+ to have the book made.
But much has changed since then. I still think of the term “self-publishing” to indicate an artist that has decided to undertake all aspects of the production of the book themselves, without the aid of a publisher. But there is no longer the “vanity press” stigma, not by a long shot. Self-publishing can imply a print-on-demand book (using a service such as Blurb or Lulu or MagCloud) or any small-run book that operates on the edge of the traditional “trade” book world. Alec Soth’s The Last Days of W, or Philip Underdown’s recent Grasslands are two good, recent examples.
AA: We all seem to be on the same page: self-publishers independently develop the content of the book (with or without a designer or editor) as well as the elements of production, distribution and promotion of the book as a marketable object. The modes of production have obviously changed, so these are exciting times for photographers who want to exhibit their work using published media. There are larger questions about what constitutes a photography publication: photo blogs, multimedia websites, and online magazines are self-publications that have exploded in recent years and we’ve really only begun to see how those forms will influence photobook publishing.
DB: I think it’s pretty clear. A self-publisher is someone who creates and directs the book in the direction that they declare. A self-publisher usually does all of the editing and designing as well, and takes it as far as the mind and wallet permit.
What are common worries that you have heard that photographers have in relation to print-on-demand?
AA: The number one concern seems to be quality and consistency. As soon as POD operations can deliver consistently reliable, color-managed, quality results those fears are going to go away and we’ll see a greater diversity of self-published books than ever before. That day is coming and I’m looking forward to it.
DB: Quality control is what I hear over and over. Photographers are very concerned about what the final product looks like and what it costs to get to a satisfaction result. Print-on-demand is getting better and better but it is still not perfect. When using several different machines, there is no guarantee that all the books will have the same print quality.
MM: Well, inconsistency of product is often the issue. I read a blog entry bashing one of the big POD publishers where he ranted about the outsourcing of printing. One book came from one contract printer, and the second from another, and the third from yet another. I am not sure if this is the case at this date as this was some time ago. I have also heard about at least one other issue with another POD company that is comparable.
DH: I think that the biggest worry surrounding print-on-demand can be summed up in one word: control, as everyone else has mentioned. But interestingly enough, it’s the same word I would use in relation to the biggest worry photographers have when making a book using ANY technology, not just print-on-demand, but the traditional method of offset lithography as well. Being visual artists, photographers want to make sure that the look of the book is to their liking—things like color management and reproduction are extremely important, as are materials and the feel of the book. Regardless of reproduction method, someone skilled at managing that particular process MUST be involved.
About the contributors:
Andy Adams is the Editor / Publisher of FlakPhoto.com , a contemporary photography website that celebrates the culture of image-making by promoting the discovery of artists from around the world. An online art space + photography publication, the site provides opportunities for a global community of artists and photo organizations to share new series work, book projects, and gallery exhibitions with a web-based photography audience.
David Bram is a fine art photographer and the editor, founder, and curator of Fraction Magazine, an online venue dedicated to fine art photography, showcasing the work of both emerging and very established fine art photographers. Fraction Magazine was founded in 2008 and is currently on it’s sixteenth issue and has shown portfolios from more than 85 photographers.
David has been reviewing portfolios at various events including Review LA, Review Santa Fe, PhotoNOLA and Fotofest. He was also a juror for Review Santa Fe in 2010 as well as a juror for Critical Mass in 2009 and 2010.
Darius Himes is an acquiring editor at Radius Books, a non-profit publisher of books on photography and the visual arts he started with colleagues in 2007. Prior to that he was the founding editor of photo-eye Booklist, a quarterly magazine devoted to photography books, from 2002–2007. He is also a lecturer, educator and writer, having contributed to Aperture, Blind Spot, Bookforum, BOMB, PDN, and American Photo. He earned his BFA in Photography from Arizona State University and a Master of Arts in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College. In 2008, he was named by PDN as one of fifteen of the most influential people in photo book publishing. His forthcoming book, Publish Your Photography Book, and co-authored with Mary Virginia Swanson, will be released by Princeton Architectural Press in the Fall of 2010.
Melanie McWhorter has managed photo-eye’s Book Division for over 11 years. She maintains her own photo-related blog melaniephotoblog.com and is co-founder of Finite Foto which focuses on photography in New Mexico. She has been interviewed about photography in PDN, The Picture Show, Santa Fe’s THE magazine; judged the prestigious photography competitions Women Photojournalists of Washington’s Annual Exhibition and Fotografia: Fotofestival di Roma’s Book Prize; reviewed portfolios at Fotografia, Photolucida, Review Santa Fe and PhotoNOLA and contributed to photo-eye Magazine, the photo-eye Blog and Fraction. She will be speaking at Click646 in October 2010 and tentatively teaching at New Orleans Photography Workshops in December 2010.
Independent Photobook Links
Photography Book Now, sponsored by Blurb
Self-Publish, Be Happy – http://selfpublishbehappy.wordpress.com/
Indie Photobook Library, started and managed by Larissa Leclair
The Future of Photobooks: A Cross-Blog Discussion